Freddie Gaither Jr. named MLK award recipient
Martin Luther King Jr. once said a person only needs a heart full of grace in order to serve, "a soul generated by love."
By finding love in serving others, Freddie Gaither Jr., a convicted felon who four years ago knew he needed to change, now holds an award dedicated to Dr. King and his belief in second chances. Gaither received one of the 2013 MLK Community Service Award from the MLK Social Action Committee for creating a ministry that feeds hundreds of homeless people across the Chair City every month. Vickie McKiver also received the award.
"It blew my mind to know that someone can see the change in me," Gaither, 45, said. "When I sit back and look at my life and everything I've done, with the negative side, and now seeing that someone has seen a change in me and thinks I'm worthy of receiving a great honor like that, makes me feel real good to be able to share what I've been through."
In 2008, while sitting in jail looking back on a life littered with crime and addiction, Gaither decided the time had come to forge a new path. Equipped with skills learned through a prison vocational rehabilitation program, Gaither returned to Thomasville a year later determined to make a difference, not only for himself but others. With the help of Minerval Jenkins, Gaither opened Being My Brother's Keeper, a ministry that serves a free monthly meal at the Strickland Center. As someone who was homeless himself, Gaither understands how difficult it can be for someone trying to pick up the pieces and get back on their feet.
"This award means a lot to me because of what Dr. King stood for — equality for all men," said Gaither. "I'm just tickled to death to receive an honor in his name. I have love for people where I didn't have love before. There are a lot of people who knew me from back in the day who come up and say ‘thank you for what you're doing.’ It makes me feel good."
For Jenkins, believing in the man in front of her mattered more than Gaither's history.
"I knew nothing of his past," Jenkins said. "He told me he wanted to help feed the homeless and I was very impressed with his concern for the community. I just know him as the man I see him as now. He's committed, serious and he continues to work toward his goal. Everybody needs someone to believe in them."
As a convicted felon, Gaither struggles to find a steady job. Last June, he lost his job when the business was sold, yet he continues his efforts at the ministry.
"It set me back, but I know God is going to open some doors for me," said Gaither. "I know I have to do a lot of work in the process. I just thank God for the people he has put into my life, who see the vision I have. It plays a major part with me and my ministry."
Moving forward, Gaither's goal is to open a homeless shelter in Thomasville. Gaither lived in a homeless shelter in Minnesota and looks back on the experience as a stepping stone on his road to recovery.
"I was out of state and I didn't have nothing," Gaither said. "The shelter was a place I could go and sleep and eat. It helped me while I was there to get on my feet. I want that for others because I know what it's like."
Gaither also wants to reach out to Thomasville's young people. Gaither graduated from Thomasville High School in 1986 where he lettered in three sports only to enter a world he wasn't ready for. He feels if young men and women would simply listen more they could learn from other's mistakes and avoid the same life pitfalls that led him to alcohol addiction and committing crimes.
"I did a lot of crazy stuff growing up," said Gaither. "I did a lot of prison time. I felt I had to go through something to put me where I needed to be. If I had listened a long time ago I wouldn't have had to go through what I went through. There's not a lot for the teens do and it's hurting us. It's easy to feel like no one cares about you. We need to change that."
Gaither's heart finally is generated by love. The troubled young man who ran with the wrong crowd now is a humble servant of his community. When Dr. King spoke of second chances more than four decades ago, his words were directed at men like Freddie Gaither Jr.
Staff Writer Eliot Duke can be reached at 888-3578, or firstname.lastname@example.org.